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The David Story 4: A Witness to the Church

July 11, 2012

A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah E. Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2012. This is the fourth sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David.

2 Samuel 5:1-10          Psalm 48          Mark 6:1-13

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back” —thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inwards. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

A WITNESS TO THE CHURCH: YOUNG LEADERS AT THE PC(USA) GENERAL ASSEMBLY

This week’s reading from Second Samuel makes it official: David is made King of Israel and Judah. What we have skipped over between last week’s recounting of David’s lament of Saul and Jonathan and this week’s anointing are a series of bloody battles, punctuated by acts of mercy by David.  First David honors his opponents who provided a proper burial for Saul. David then reconciles with Abner, the commander of Saul’s army and send s him off in peace. Unfortunately, David’s men missed the message and when they come upon Abner and kill him, David mourns Abner’s death and decries the act of revenge carried out by his army. When Saul’s son Ishbosheth is murdered at home in his own bed by David’s warriors, David punishes the act by having those warriors put to death.

Any celebration of David’s mercy, of course, must be counterbalanced with the blood he has on his own hands.  Besides killing his men to punish the fact that they killed someone (where does the killing end?), in these intermittent verses David also receives a wife, Michal, stolen from her husband for David by Abner…a sign of things to come. 

Our lectionary text is deceptively clean, a leader recognized by his people and strengthened by the Lord to capture Jerusalem to reign there for forty years. In truth, David’s ascension to power and his reign over Israel, is a royal mess of abuses of power, blessings from God, inspiring humility and excessive pride.

I returned home to White Plains Saturday evening from 9 days at the Presbyterian Church USA’s 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, PA.  The General Assembly is attended by thousands of people from all over the United States and all over the world.  Of the thousands present approximately 600 people are sent by their Presbyteries as commissioners, those who have the authority, voice and vote to make decisions that affect the life of the PC(USA) and our mission in the world.

At General Assembly the power dynamics of our church are magnified as issues, both extraordinarily controversial and extraordinarily mundane, are debated and decided. There are some David-like or Davidic trends – both positive and negative – to how power is used in our church.  The PC(USA) acted with great humility and mercy this week on many fronts: all 12 overtures related to the church’s solidarity with immigrants, including the one put forth by the White Plains Presbyterian Church’s session and Hudson River Presbytery were approved by the body.  The text of that overture will be available in a link when I post this sermon and I look forward to living out the call of the overture to be church with new immigrants here in White Plains.  The body also voted to return to study the Belhar Confession – the confession that we studied together here during the Lenten season – with the hope that its essential call to reconciliation will soon be included in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions

However at this moment in the life of the church we also align with the story of David’s ascension to power in one very dangerous sense that limits our voice and authority in matters of justice in this world.  As our denomination shrinks in numbers, many in the PC(USA) are longing for our re-ascension to power, for people – new members – to come to us and crown us again as religious authorities.  Many are hoping for the return of a peaceful reign with the church as the welcomed moral authority and guide. In this context of authority-seeking, dissent is silenced and difference is viewed as a threat.  Power is hoarded in an attempt to steer away from the complications of our commitment to ALL people (gay, straight, poor, rich, every race, ethnicity, language group and age). The neat, pure Kingship didn’t happen for Israel and it definitely isn’t working for the church. Our desire to be honored and elevated as an institution is bringing us down and pulling us apart.  Our fear of losing power is paralyzing us.

Mark’s gospel paints a very different vision of authority as Jesus, another young leader, arrives at his hometown and is immediately confronted with disdain and repulsion: “Who do you think you are doing these miracles and healings?” “Who do you think you are teaching us in the synagogue?”  Jesus is amazed at their unbelief and his power is somewhat diminished we are told, a point that highlights the intensity of his hometown’s disdain.  Jesus is rejected and his immediate response is to multiply his efforts to spread the good news of the gospel.  His rejection is channeled into intensified commitment to mission to all who need hope and healing.

The second half of the passage details the commissioning of the disciples: they are “organized, empowered, simplified, and dressed”[i] to minister throughout the land.  They are prepared for rejection and assume its inevitability. Jesus tells them that if they are not listened to, they are to wipe the dust off their shoes at the door and leave as a witness “against” or “to” those rejecting them, depending on how you translate the Greek.  Whether it is a witness “against” or a witness “to”, the arc of Jesus’ mission and message suggests that the decision to move on was not permanent disconnection from those who didn’t receive the Gospel the first time – and praise God for that – but rather it was to emphasize the urgency of spreading the Gospel message.

 And that interpretation would be consistent with Mark’s gospel and its repetition of the word “immediately” over and over again.  The point is movement…bringing urgently needed relief to the poor and sick, the lost and rejected and this kind of movement necessitated power-sharing.  Jesus distributed authority to his disciples and sent them on their way to be welcomed and rejected and to witness in either event.  The call to the church is to Jesus’ vision of authority – shared, prepared for rejection, focused on movement.

If there is any one group that can help to lead the church from their Davidic longings to the risk-filled movement of Jesus’ disciples, it is youth and young adults.  In part because they are in many ways rejected by the church themselves…and that rejection has not stopped them from living out their faith in real and meaningful ways. The demographics for the commissioners at General Assembly were stated during the first day of business: there were more commissioners over the age of 75 than under the age of 45.  Before every vote, the commissioners received advisory votes from Young Adult Advisory Delegates and Theological Student Advisory Delegates to help inform them how the youngest voices in the church would have them vote.

At times – most notably in regards to the language change in the definition of Christian marriage to include same-sex unions, a change that the young adult and seminary student advisors broadly supported – their counsel was not heeded.  An overture to require Presbyteries and Synods to include young adult commissioners in their delegations to General Assemblies was rejected even as the PC(USA) created new initiatives designed to attract younger people to the church.  In recent months blogs and op-eds related to the church have been abuzz with frustrations about the church establishment’s desire to attract young people on the one hand and their refusal to make room for young voices on the other hand.  Churches are handed strategies to attract young people – praise music, evening worship, a “cooler” logo – but none of that will work until we simply listen.  Young adults in the church can teach us in unique, experienced ways how to move from rejection to ministry. 

There are so many stories from this past week that illustrate that point.  For now I will share just a few…but please do ask me for more when we see each other over the coming weeks.  A headline from the Presbyterian News Service on Monday read, “Young Adult Advisory Delegates model community for Assembly”.  The article highlighted their willingness and skills for communicating across theological and political differences, a skill desperately needed by the church.  On Tuesday, a group of young adult volunteers helped re-shape an overture from Hudson River Presbytery asking that the PC(USA) use a financial screening process to ensure that do not invest in for-profit prisons.  The overture was defeated in the social justice committee on Monday but a young adult observer in that committee saw the cry for justice in the overture, gathered a group of other young people along with the overture advocate, Susan Andrews, General Presbyter in Hudson River Presbytery.  They worked through lunch and a break to edit and improve the overture.  They found an ally commissioner who convinced the committee to reconsider the overture in its new form and it passed.

And on Sunday afternoon, young adults from Rural and Migrant Ministries, an organization that Hudson River Presbytery has supported for many years, were invited to perform in the Exhibit Hall at General Assembly.  Their Youth Arts Group and Youth Economic Group are supported by Self Development of People grants, a program of the Presbyterian Church that gives funding to low-income, grassroots-led groups.  I drove out to Pittsburgh with the 14 youth who attended General Assembly and fell in love with them even though they were responsible for making a 7 hour trip take at least 9 hours.  On Sunday they performed “tableaus” throughout the exhibit hall. Tableaus are a form of popular theatre in which the young adults enact still-life scenes of oppression, worker mistreatment, and hope.  They broke up in pairs and moved around the hall, creating different scenes.  A third member accompanied them, handing out fliers and explaining the action to those who stopped to watch…and those who didn’t. 

After a time in pairs the group met in the center of the hall to form a scene together.  One young man dangled a dollar bill and the rest of the group extended their arms toward the money, reaching for but not close enough to grab the money.  It was a powerful scene of oppression that brought to mind all communities who struggle for rights and resources that are kept just out of reach by those in power.  They were frozen in this scene when two PC(USA) staff came over, alarmed and agitated, and approached Harriet Sandemeier, a member of Hudson River Presbytery, who was busy snapping pictures. They informed us that no protests were allowed in the exhibit hall.  We explained that the youth had permission from the Self Development of People program and that this was not a protest.  The staff replied that they were outside of the perimeter of the booth and had to move immediately.  It was a discomforting moment that revealed how high tensions run at General Assembly and how fear can steer us to the wrong conclusions.  I met with the exhibit hall manager later in the week and he committed to doing more training with staff about not assuming the worst immediately and about thinking especially carefully about how they approach youth at the assembly. 

Most remarkable in the whole scenario were the youth: as staff members panicked and approached them they never moved an inch.  They held their positions until the bell rang that signaled the end of the scene.  In reflecting on the performance, they said they were invigorated by the challenges to what they were doing and that the challenge itself signaled to them that they were pushing against structures that need to change.  Their performance ended back in the booth, within the perimeter, in a group pose called chain of hope.  They linked hands, lifted them up, and invited all who were around them to join – lifelong Presbyterians, General Assembly staff, visitors to the Assembly.  From rejection, to mission, to hope: we are being called forward by the youth, will we let them lead?

 


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Grandma Leslie permalink
    July 12, 2012 7:45 am

    Sarah: This was such a powerful message. I cried as I heard it on Sunday. I cried as I read it again today. Still not sure if my tears are tears of joy or tears of grief. Maybe both/and. But, I’m encouraged by the resilience of youth throughout the ages such that they don’t let power structures and dynamics diminish the work God leads them to. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/warning/ (I’ve had a sightly different version on a poster in my bedroom for years) is a link to a poem about becoming old and intrepid (again.) My prayer is that those of us in our later years who want to live into the spirit of this poem will find ways to undergird the youth and young adults of the PC(USA) and the church in general as they prod us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
    BTW you inspired my daughter-in-law to return to her home and church and move forward with initiatives to demonstrate to their young adults that they are not only loved but important to that church. Leslie

    • hudrivprescrosscultural permalink
      July 12, 2012 4:20 pm

      Leslie, what I keep saying about General Assembly and the many experiences I had there is that I’m as hopeful as I am depressed 🙂 So tears of grief and happiness makes sense to me! I love that poem and your prayer for the denomination. I have so many thoughts swirling in my mind about how the Cross-Cultural Network can be a catalyst and support for young adult leaders in our Presbytery… ideas brought up by participants in the Cross-Cultural Network and ideas that have grown out the GA experience. I’m excited and hopeful. Glad your daughter-in-law was there and the message will keep moving!!

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